There was a time when higher education accreditation was a completely voluntary, non-governmental ranking. Colleges created it. They wanted to inform people of what a higher education was and to identify institutions with the capacity to provide it. They also wanted a private third party to assist in quality improvement, which is why accreditation was (and still is) a private process with a pass/fail outcome; either you are accredited or you aren’t, there’s nothing in between.
All this changed when accreditation agencies became the gatekeepers of federal financial aid money, an incremental process beginning in the mid-1980s. Today higher education institutions are reliant on federal financial aid (how else would you pay for tuition), which means they need to be accredited in order to survive. Unfortunately these powerful and far from impartial agencies are in a position to, in effect, hold schools hostage. Schools’ actions (and inactions) required to meet the demands of accreditation carry over into tuition hikes for you in a number of disturbing ways.
Imposing Unnecessary Costs
- Demanding Lower Teaching Loads:
Instead of deferring to teachers and administrators whose daily experience gives them the ability to gauge teachers’ workloads, accreditors assume this role. Decreasing the maximum workload forces schools to funnel money into hiring more faculty.
- Demanding Higher Teacher Credentials:
This is the effect of rampant academic inflation on the teaching profession. Just because someone is highly credentialed in a certain field, doesn’t make them a great, or even a good teacher. It does make them better paid, though.
- Specialized Accreditors:
Accreditors frequently have an agenda of their own; they are biased toward their specific area of accreditation, like the American Bar Association for example. Colleges are forced to spend massive amounts of money in areas like physical facilities, libraries and faculty, without any evidence to indicate that these things are actually improving the learning experience.
Barriers to Innovation
With astronomical tuition rates, schools are in dire need of innovation to help mitigate the current crisis. Because higher education inputs are easier to quantify and regulate than the outputs, inputs and processes are the focus of accreditation standards. This seriously handicaps institutions’ ability to modernize in an administrative capacity, which would save costs. It also inhibits institutions’ ability to alter the way in which students are educated. Schools are afraid to touch any regulated area that might endanger their accreditation.
Barriers to Entry
For the same reasons as mentioned above, schools with innovative methods of education, both on the financial side and regarding how students are taught and what they learn are barred from entering the market due to non-standard inputs.
Education and creativity expert Ken Robinson has spoken out about the need for innovation in higher education: “Our education system has mined our minds in the way that we’ve strip-mined the earth: for a particular commodity. And in the future it won’t serve us.” If we’re going to fruitfully address the problems that we see today, we’re going to need to honor the precious gift of our creative capacity. Fortunately there are innovative solutions for assisting students – the victims of these rampant increases in college costs – in managing the resultant student debt.